Many memories came to mind when I recently renewed the work permit of Mary, my Filipino domestic helper.
Mary had been working with our family for almost 20 years now. She arrived in Singapore from a village in Cebu when she was 18.
Back then, there was not much pre-service training and Mary learnt most things from scratch. I remember her panic when she broke a large and valuable antique vase whilst learning how to use the vacuum cleaner. But she is an intelligent girl and in no time, became a very able helpmate and beloved nanny of my children.
After my son was diagnosed with autism many years ago, Mary travelled the journey of shock, anger, despair, learning and joy together with our family. She took therapy lessons with me; and even though she had much less formal education than I, Mary did her best to help implement the daily lessons I planned for him.
Mary became fiercely protective of him and other children with special needs we encountered over the years.
Once, at a children’s party, much to my embarrassment, she scolded the clown for constantly ignoring the raised hand of my son who clumsily and unsuccessfully tried to get a turn for a game.
Another time during pre-school, my son was physically abused by a hot-tempered drama teacher who was upset with the class for not understanding her Mandarin instructions. I remember Mary wept in sadness with my husband and I when our then- 5-year-old could not himself express how the teacher hit him repeatedly. We could only rely on what his other typical classmates and teachers told us.
Mary loved both my children dearly as her own. She knew I do not want my children to be pampered by material gifts so she secretly bought expensive birthday gifts for them when they were young. I had to issue her a very stern and final warning when I discovered she spent almost her full monthly salary on some gold jewellery for my daughter’s birthday.
I have personal experiences with other domestic helpers as well.
When my mother was afflicted by Alzheimers’ Disease and could no longer speak nor look after herself, my siblings and I decided on domestic help as our caregiving choice instead of sending mom to a nursing home. The physical and emotional demands were tough on the helpers as mom was not small-built and was unable to interact socially with the helper. So far, 3 have come and gone; serving an average of 3 to 4 years.
Like Mary, they and the other domestic helpers I met in Singapore, left their families and hometowns to come to a foreign land to work; usually travelling for the first time away from home to live with an unknown employer family. The kind of employer they are destined to spend the next few years of their lives with, is akin to the throw of the dice. Employers range from really decent ones to those who could be physically or even sexually abusive.
Like us, these women have their share of dreams and life problems.
Many who are unmarried yearn for a spouse and family.
Those who are married face the risk of husbands who, in their absence, turn to other women for comfort.
Those who have children left their children to the care of relatives back at home.
After paying up their agents’ fees and regular remittances home, some respond to further appeals for money due to family emergencies or simply, increased expectations and needs such as family home renovations or extensions.
Not all of them can handle the emotional and physical challenges they confront. And we hear of horror stories of a minority who lost their senses and even killed their charges.
There are more than 200,000 foreign domestic helpers in Singapore. Most of them do a decent job of looking after the elderly and the young; taking care of the housework and enabled many of their employers to go out to work or to pursue the lifestyle of choice.
In my family therefore, we do not call them ‘maids’ which traditionally brings to mind people of very low status in the household. We genuinely see them as our helpers and are grateful to them.
The Singapore Government and some voluntary welfare agencies had been paying attention to the welfare of foreign domestic workers amongst us.
In recent years, measures have been made to improve their welfare and safety. These measures include instituting regular off-days and stopping the practice of window-cleaning in high rise buildings. Some of these measures are not always popular amongst employers; there are arguments both for and against these proposed measures.
I believe there are 3 useful mindsets to adopt as we think about these measures.
One, domestic helpers are like the rest of us – people with their own needs, dreams, fears and life challenges.
Two, both employers and their helpers would benefit from applying the Golden Rule or the ethic of reciprocity which is simply, to do unto others as we would have others do unto us.
And lastly, instead of thinking ‘win-lose’ where any benefit for one is seen as a loss for the other party; we can try to adopt the mindset of creatively finding a ‘win-win’ alternative that might better address both the needs of the employer and their domestic helpers.
If we are foreign domestic helpers ourselves, how would we wish to be treated?
MY PAPER COLUMN
12 June 2012
image re post from Fabrications About The PAP